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What if . . . the Beatles had never formed

Now that the plaudits are rolling in for Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art, which imagines a meeting between Benjamin Britten and W H Auden, perhaps Bennett should turn his attention to another meeting that never was. By an extraordinary coincidence, four of Britain's best-known public figures all grew up in Liverpool at around the same time.

It is easy to imagine the opening scene - a church fete, perhaps, somewhere in Liverpool, say in 1957 - but impossible to imagine where things might go afterwards. Apart from a shared but ultimately juvenile interest in that vanished fad of the late 1950s, rock'n'roll music, Paul McCartney and the future Lord Lennon had virtually nothing in common. And even if they had got together with those two other distinguished Liverpool boys, Richard Starkey and Sir George Harrison, their lives are now so different that you wonder what on earth they would have talked about.

One conceit might be to imagine them setting up some kind of skiffle group; after all, Lennon was once a member of a band called the Quarrymen, while the others, like all teenagers of the day, were interested in pop music. The problem, though, is that skiffle was such a musical cul-de-sac, and rock'n'roll never had the variety and depth to survive. As Decca's Mike Smith, music's most celebrated talent-spotter, remarked in 1962: "Groups with guitars are on the way out." The future lay with trad jazz, the ancestor of 21st-century genres such as death jazz, trad punk and hop hip. Acker Bilk was always going to be a star; John Lennon never was.

Instead, our four youngsters ploughed very different furrows. With his Liverpool background, Starkey was perfectly placed to profit from the kitchen-sink drama boom of the early 1960s. He became the symbol of the British New Wave, his acting skills taking him from the Royal Court theatre to six Oscar nominations.

As for Sir George, from an early age he displayed the love of money that made him a household name in the 1980s: the man who brought Indian ready-meals to the ordinary family, the most notorious of all Thatcher's corporate raiders and the star of the BBC's The Apprentice.

Meanwhile, Lord Lennon remains one of the most recognisable figures in British public life, although it is seven years now since he stepped down as an unusually sanctimonious Archbishop of Canterbury (catchphrase: "Nobody is more popular than Jesus"). And Paul McCartney - oh dear. With his affable manner and easy charm, he was always one of the easiest Tory MPs to like, but the expenses scandal - a second home on the Mull of Kintyre! - really did him in. Perhaps he should have joined a band after all.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.